Introduction: Identifying the causes of adult-onset rheumatic diseases remains a challenge, and limits diagnosis, prognosis, and targeted treatment. We hypothesized that mutations in genes regulating the post-translational modification ubiquitin, previously implicated in two autoinflammatory diseases, may define new rheumatic disorders.

Methods: We analyzed peripheral blood exome sequence data from 2,560 individuals with inflammation-related diagnoses for deleterious mutations in >800 ubiquitin-related genes. After discovering three patients with novel UBA1 mutations, we identified additional cases based on clinical similarities through screening multiple independent cohorts. Clinical evaluation of all patients combined with Sanger sequencing, digital droplet PCR, immunoblotting, immunohistochemistry, flow cytometry, and transcriptome/cytokine profiling were performed. CRISPR/Cas9 edited zebrafish provided an in vivo model to assess UBA1 gene function.

Results: Twenty-eight adult males were identified with somatic mutations at methionine 41 in UBA1, an X-linked gene, encoding the major E1 enzyme that initiates ubiquitylation. Methionine 41 is highly conserved in UBA1, and these mutations were not observed in exome sequences from over 80,000 healthy controls. Among affected individuals, mutations were found in more than half of hematopoietic stem cells, exclusively in peripheral blood myeloid cells, and not in lymphocytes or fibroblasts. The variant allele fraction of UBA1 p.Met41 mutations in peripheral blood ranged from 20-95%. Patients developed an often fatal, treatment-refractory inflammatory syndrome in late adulthood, with fever, neutrophilic cutaneous and pulmonary inflammation, chondritis, and vasculitis and some individuals met clinical criteria for relapsing polychondritis, Sweet syndrome, polyarteritis nodosa, or giant cell arteritis. In addition, the majority of subjects developed myelodysplastic bone marrow with cytopenias, characteristic vacuoles in myeloid and erythroid precursors cells, progressive bone marrow failure and thromboembolic disease, and some fulfilled clinical criteria for myelodysplastic syndrome or plasma cell dyscrasia. Transformation into MDS with excess blasts or acute myeloid leukemia did not occur in any case. Mutations at p.Met41, the initiation start site of the canonical cytoplasmic isoform, caused loss of this protein and expression of a novel, catalytically impaired isoform initiated at p.Met67. Mutant peripheral blood cells exhibited decreased ubiquitylation and activated innate immune pathways. Knockout of the zebrafish cytoplasmic UBA1 isoform homologue, but not the nuclear isoform, caused systemic inflammation. These results identify somatic mutations in UBA1 as the cause, and not the consequence, of this inflammatory disease.

Conclusions: We have defined a novel disorder, VEXAS (vacuoles, E1 enzyme, X-linked, autoinflammatory, somatic), which connects seemingly unrelated adult-onset inflammatory and hematologic diseases. Our work also reveals somatic mutations in a hematopoietic stem cell as a cause of adult-onset rheumatic syndromes that overlap with hematologic conditions. Identification of UBA1 mutations as a cause of these diseases has important implications for classification, prognosis, and treatment of patients, and for the role of somatic mutations of hematopoietic origin in multi-organ pathophysiology.


Young:Novartis: Research Funding.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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